It was the type of school day that made even the most fervent seekers of knowledge start fighting back yawns. Every lecture was droning, every piece of reading assigned from sections of their course books so dull that even the authors couldn't have found the information enthralling, and even classes that would normally be interesting were spent working on essays or watching educational slideshows.
In short, it was the perfect type of day for Doctor Disaster to suddenly burst into one of their classrooms.
"Triffids have been spotted menacing the moors! Spacemonauts, assemble!"
"Should he really still call us 'Spacemonauts' if we're meant to be remaining on Earth this time?" Annie asked Kat as she gathered up her books and began following the rest of their class out the door.
"Come on, Annie. You can't expect him to change the name every time he has a different type of assignment for us."
"Perhaps not," Annie acknowledged. "But he might have chosen a more generic name to start with."
Their suits were the same as they ever were, their ship the same as well although they weren't meant to be going to the stars.
"I believe that I've heard of triffids before," Annie said as the world dropped into black and white around them. "But they were just characters in a story."
Kat gave her a look. "Annie, even if this was real, you've made friends with a minotaur, a shadow, and a bunch of weird death guys. What's the difference?"
Annie thought about explaining the difference between creatures from stories so old that people might well have forgotten they were originally non-fictional historical accounts, and a book that was written within the past century. Then she remembered that this was all meant to be in fun, and smiled slightly. "You're right, of course, Kat."
Kat grinned broadly back at her. "See? That's the spirit! So, if you know about these things, what can we expect?"
"I'm afraid that I never read the book myself, I've only heard of it," Annie admitted. "I believe that the triffids were a type of plant. I'm fairly sure that they don't have arms either."
"You need to get past this obsession with monsters needing arms, Annie," Kat said, rolling her eyes though her tone was fond. Then she grabbed Annie's hand and began pulling her towards the rest of the class. "That will give us something to look for, anyway. Come on, we'll let everyone know."
But when they reached the group. Winsbury shushed her before she'd even opened her mouth. "Shut it, Donlan. Margo's letting us know what we're in for."
"...so, the first thing we need to do is find a way to make salt water," Margo was saying. "This should be an easy mission; they're too slow to be very dangerous to anyone who's not blind."
Annie noticed the disgruntled look on Kat's face, and gave her hand a small squeeze. "It's all right, Kat. We can't always have all the answers."
o 0 O 0 o
Mars, Annie found, was a very dull planet to be tied up on. From the position she was lying in, trussed up like a holiday goose, there was nothing to see but the endless desert landscape, broken only by the death ray of the day and a small cluster of her alien captors nearby. Death rays had rather lost their mystique after the fifth time one of Doctor Disaster's missions had involved one, and the aliens looked like nothing more than giant praying mantises, unusual only in their size and not especially interesting to examine for long.
It would be more bearable if the Martians hadn't gagged their captives when tying them up, so she could have at least talked with Kat while waiting for the few free members of their class left to come rescue them. Or even if they'd only bound her in a way that would allow her to sit up while waiting, instead of being forced to lie still staring blankly ahead.
There was a sudden flurry of activity among the mantises, a sure sign that they'd taken yet another captive, but this time they seemed more worked up than ever when one of their soldiers dragged Janet in front of the others. They gathered closely together and had a rapid conversation, too quietly for Annie to hear anything more than a high humming noise, then the one of them she thought to be their leader broke from the pack and raised a triumphant leg to the sky.
"Fools!" it said, its voice like the whining buzz of an entire hive worth of bees. "You obviously didn't realize that we've been spying on you for years! And now you've brought your leader's spawn right into our clutches, not thinking we'd realize what a treasure we'd been given." It whirled around to face its people, the buzz of its voice growing more high pitched with what could only be excitement. "Prepare the ray for activation! We'll soon see what the human called Headmaster is willing to sacrifice to keep its young from being blasted!"
Just for that moment Annie was glad for the gag, because without it she knew it would be difficult to resist calling attention to the absurdity of insects from Mars believing that a school headmaster was so important, and then Kat would be upset with her again for not playing along with the act.
The mantises dragged Janet towards the death ray while she made a show of resisting, putting a lot more effort into it than Annie suspected anyone else in the class would bother with since they knew no real harm would come to them. Once or twice she even managed to break away, but she couldn't get far with such a large group clustered around her. But before they could position her in front of it a voice rang out across the Martian dunes, "Hands off the girl!"
Annie tried to crane her neck around far enough to see who all had appeared, but it was impossible. It didn't matter much anyway, as a moment later, when the mantises didn't comply with the demand, the same voice said, "Right, John. Let's go squash some bugs," and then Winsbury and Sullivan's John were bounding past in the great leaps allowed by Mars' low gravity, their laser guns blazing.
It soon proved to be the same sort of anticlimactic battle that Doctor Disaster's lessons always ended in; the enemy easily routed, the death ray easily destroyed. Annie supposed that she could understand why he made it happen that way. It would rather go against 'fighting for the sake of the world' atmosphere he tried to maintain if the final fight proved to be too difficult for them, only for the only consequence to be the holograms shutting off around them.
Soon all that was left to conclude the fight was the snappy one-liner, but instead of producing one Winsbury turned towards Janet and gruffly asked, "You all right?"
They had never bound her like the others in their haste to get her shoved in front of the death ray, and she slowly pushed herself to her feet from where she fallen when the mantis holding her had been shot. "Oh, William," she said, in a tone that could almost be called a coo, "My hero" And then she flung herself at him.
Annie hadn't noticed it growing dark, but it must have been because suddenly Winsbury and Janet were silhouetted against the setting sun as he wrapped an arm around her waist to pull her closer. "You know I'd never leave you to get your head bit off by giant insects," he told her, his voice sounding unaccountably deeper than usual.
Beside them, Sullivan's John cleared his throat awkwardly.
Slowly they looked away from each other, to their helplessly transfixed audience of classmates. A moment later they were shooting away from each other so quickly that it practically seemed like they teleported, the gravity helping to put meters of space between them in no time flat.
When he came to a halt, Winsbury glared around at each and every one of them. "What?" he snapped. "This is sorta supposed to be our drama class, right? None of you ever heard of acting?
o 0 O 0 o
After an arduous trek up the side of a mountain, into the lowest level of Venus' thick, sulfurous, clouds, they finally found the entrance to the cave system their enemies of the day had holed up in.
It was far from their most entertaining mission. The creatures they were there to fight didn't seem at all interested in fighting them; instead of running around trying to take the whole class captive to get them out of the way, they apparently hoped that if they hid long enough the Spacemonauts would just give up and leave them to their plotting. If some of the students had their way it might even have worked. There was more than a little grumbling at having to perform a systematic search instead of getting to jump quickly into a fight with their guns blazing.
When they finally found the nest they'd been searching for, Kat stopped dead at the first sight of the enemy while the others darted around her, ready for a fight. When Annie touched her shoulder, checking to see if she was okay, she suddenly burst into helpless giggles, one hand covering her mouth the other stretched out to point at the aliens.
"Oh... oh geeze... Annie," she wheezed out through her laughter. "Those have got to be your fault! This is what happens when you get too nitpicky about arms where the guy who programs the holograms can hear!"
Annie looked over at the aliens herself, with a small frown. They looked like nothing so much as a drawing of a sunburst brought to life, with perfectly human-looking arms ending in perfectly human-looking hands in the place of their rays.
"Doctor Disaster still seems to have strange ideas about how he should make his aliens behave. Why would these creatures be the ones who try to avoid a fight, when ones like the Enigmarons should be much more defenseless?"
Kat smiled fondly at her, and shoved a gun into her hand. "You still think about that type of thing too much for this class, Annie. Come on, let's kick some arm!"
o 0 O 0 o
Their Earth-saving skills got better with every mission they went on. This time they had managed to reach the enemy base with only one of their classmates being captured on the way, and even that wouldn't have happened if Paz had understood their shouts to look out above her, or if any of them had known how to say 'Duck!' in Spanish.
They were all huddled together behind a low rise, carefully planning how best to complete the mission without any other Spacemonauts being captured, when their talk was interrupted by someone shouting "Outta our way!" in the distance.
"Oh no," Kat said, blinking at Annie while their classmates scrambled to look over the top of the hill. "I recognize that voice, don't I?"
"I'm afraid that I believe so," Annie replied, offering her a weak smile.
"How could they even get here?" Kat asked rhetorically.
Sure enough, when they joined the others in peering out at what was happening they could instantly recognize the girl who was in the process of kicking one of the many-tentacled horrors they were there to defeat in the gut by her head of spiky red hair, and from there it was easy enough to guess at the identity of the girl following her from a distance. The kick sent the creature stumbling backwards into the daily device of doom and destruction, which, in a domino effect, made it crash over sideways, right onto the monster that seemed to be the leader, but Red paid no attention to that. She had spotted the Spacemonauts and was stamping over to them, shoving straight past any aliens that got in her way.
"You! Wosyerface!" she yelled, pointing at Annie when she got close. "Why didjoo gotta come out here? We tried yellin' for you, but you din't say nothin' so we hadda sneak on your flyey-thing to follow you, and we couldn't get out 'til after when you left!"
"We never heard you yelling. And you could have just waited for us outside until the hologram was set up, you know," Kat said, not looking at all pleased to be talking with the girl again.
"The hollerwassit?" Red asked, squinting at her for a second before shaking her head quickly. "Anyway, we din't wanna have'ta wait for alls you to get back down there."
"We have a question for you," Blue chimed in, much more calmly.
"It's... nice to see you both again," Annie said charitably. "What is it that you need?"
"Annie, are you really sure we want to get into this?" Kat hissed to her, but Annie just offered her a helpless shrug in return.
"It's like dis," Red said, crossing her arms behind the back of her head and leaning back slightly against the air. "It got all hot tad'day, right? So we wanna hear 'bout that 'summer holiday' thingy you got to--"
"Wait!" Blue broke in, suddenly giving Kat and Annie a hard stare.
"Hey! Hey hey hey!" Red said, glaring at her. "I letcha be my friend, so you don't getta talk when I'm talkin'!"
"But look! Look at their hair!" Blue said, pointing at them.
Red turned and seemed to really focus on them instead of whatever self-centered inner world she was usually fixated on for the first time since she'd shown up before them. A moment later she was pointing too. "Your hair! It's stripy!"
"It's stripy!" Blue cheered.
"Wait, wait, how'd two weird faces like you all get dat kinda hair? Was it the cuttin' guy?"
"Ooh, we have to find out," Blue said, grabbing Red's arm. "Do you know what this means?"
"You can get your head blue again!" Red yelled.
"I can get my head blue again!" Blue echoed happily.
"Do those two care about anything but hair?" Kat asked, her face twisting as she watched them excitedly chattering about how they'd like to color their hair.
"I... couldn't say," Annie said, then began to walk away from the two former fairies when it became clear that they were no longer paying attention to anything but their conversation. "Shall we help the others clear out the rest of the aliens until they're ready to talk to us again?"
"Oh yes, please," Kat said, trotting after her. "But why don't we skip the 'talk to us again' part?"
Annie just laughed quietly as they entered into the fray.
o 0 O 0 o
"How do you like... being... wet?" Annie tried as she stared down at the steaming patch of ground that had once contained the last of the solar flame creatures who had been trying to conquer Mercury. The not-so-snappy one-liner was met with a combination of groans and good-natured laughter.
"Not even close to good enough, Carver," Winsbury, one of the groaners, said.
"Try thinking of a pun or something, Annie," Kat said, giving her an encouraging pat on the shoulder.
Annie frowned and thought hard. After a moment she tried, "You're melting, you're melting, oh what a world?"
"Quotes can work sometimes," Sullivan's John said, rubbing the back of his head, "but they didn't really melt, did they?"
"Don't worry, Annie," Kat said, and sat down on one of the large boulders scattered around the planet's surface. "We're all going to stay here and help until you can quip with the best of them."
"But try working it out fast," Winsbury added. "I want to get back in time for lunch."
"Maybe try something to do with their fire, instead of the way they were put out," Margo said.
Annie closed her eyes and tried to think of something witty to say.
She suspected that it was going to be a long afternoon.
o 0 O 0 o
Annie had never before realized just how strong a blow their suits were able to imitate. She could feel bruises forming all across her back, along with one or two on her legs, which seemed to her rather like Doctor Disaster had taken the realism factor to the point of overkill. For a little while Kat had talked excitedly about how the suits might have been designed to produce such strong feedback, her love of science overpowering the pain of her own wounds at first, but eventually even she fell silent as the real ache set in.
They had failed miserably in their mission of the day. They had gotten too complacent, too used to aliens that hardly seemed to have a thought in their heads. Faced with large creatures that were actually both clever and strong they had fallen flat on their faces. It had been all they could do just to get their entire class back to the spaceship safely, and then to take off before anything could be done to damage it.
Luckily the worst of their injuries was just a cut on Janet's temple that oozed a steady, but thin, trail of blood down the side of her face. Annie had wondered how her head could have been cut when it was the one part of her body that her suit didn't cover, and Kat had theorized that the cliff she'd slammed into to get the cut had been disguising a real wall beneath it. It would be easy enough to treat with just a first-aid kit once they'd reached one, but Winsbury still kept throwing her worried glances from the other side of the spaceship whenever he thought nobody else was watching.
When the slight shake that let them know they were allowed to leave the ship finally came, they were surprised to see that Doctor Diaster wasn't there to greet them as he usually was. He remained absent when they walked down the long hall to the changing rooms, and had yet to appear when they all exited again in their usual uniforms. It was only when they reached the entry room to his class area that they finally found him.
He was slouched over his desk, clutching a glass of pale liquid that Annie decided she'd pretend to believe was apple juice, lacking his usually manic energy for the first time since she'd known him. While the rest of the class stayed by the door shuffling their feet, unsure of how to respond to their teacher's appearance, Janet walked over to him. So quietly that the others needed to strain their ears in order to eavesdrop, she said to the Doctor, "You need not worry about informing my father of what transpired today. I'll see to it that he knows," then walked calmly out the door.
Annie frowned thoughtfully after her. "Do you know what that was about?" she whispered to Kat.
"Not a clue," Kat replied.
She seemed like she was about to say something else, but before she had a chance Doctor Disaster finally seemed to notice the rest of the class was there and pushed himself shakily to his feet.
"Spacemonauts. Children," he said, and there was a note of deep sadness in his voice as he spoke. Annie supposed he must take his position as almost-drama teacher more seriously than she'd thought. "First let me say that I don't blame you for what happened today. I knew you were too young, that I should have sent a class from one of the higher grades, but you've all been doing so well lately that I let my confidence in your abilities overcome my misgivings. There was nothing else you could have done, and it takes a wise man to know when to run away." He seemed to lose even the energy that kept him on his feet, and sagged back onto his chair again as he raised his glass in the air towards them. "But mourn, my Spacemonauts! Mourn for the deaths of the Ring Golems, the last remnants of the once-proud Saturnian empire! Destroyed today by the same felonious fiends that drove you from their planet! Go now, children, tend your wounds and pray for the fallen."
So dismissed, the class finally started to slowly file out of the room. "Has he ever been in a mood like that before?" Annie asked Kat, her brow furrowed.
"You know, I'd completely forgotten about it, but yeah. In our first mission, before you got here, we didn't know what we were doing yet, messed up pretty badly, and had to stop without finishing it. He acted like that then too." Kat glanced back at the classroom behind them. "He's really dedicated to keeping his class as totally immersive as possible."
"I see. It does seem to work," Annie admitted.
Doctor Disaster could have been a great thespian if he'd wished to, she thought. If Kat had never informed her of the way his class truly worked, his acting, combined with her own exhaustion and the ache in her bones, might almost be enough to make her believe that an entire race had been destroyed under their watch.
It was a comforting thing, to know the truth.